“Slap Shot,” a hockey movie directed by George Roy Hill, features Paul Newman as Reggie Dunlop, a washed-up player/coach for the down-and-out Charlestown Chiefs minor league team. Dunlop, with the help of the three Hanson brothers, embarks on a winning streak when they resort to brutality and violence, which invigorates the team and boosts ticket sales.
“Slap Shot,” widely considered the most-popular hockey movie ever made, often appears on the Top-10 lists for all-time sports movies. It is not just a raunchy comedy, but it also glimpses into the dreariness of rural America in the 1970s. Hill filmed “Slap Shot” on location in the small rust-belt town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In one of the opening scenes, Newman and another player lament the closing of the local mill.
“What are they gonna do? 10,000 mill workers will be placed on waivers. Every sucker for himself, I guess.”
In the 1970s, the NHL had a reputation for being a brawling league. Hockey’s image cleaned up substantially since those goon-heavy, peak years in the 1970s. However, all the fighting reflected the brutish culture of professional hockey at the time.
Release Date: February 1977
Produced by: Robert J. Wunsch, Stephen J. Friedman
Directed by: George Roy Hill
Screenplay by: Nancy Dowd
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Nancy Dowd penned the screenplay to “Slap Shot” and wanted to make a hockey movie based on her brother, Ned Dowd. Ned played minor league hockey for the real-life Johnstown Jets in the North American Hockey League.
Critics panned the film’s superfluous usage of f-bombs and gratuitous violence. Yet, “Slap Shot” still became a cult classic in the 1980s during the era of VCR rentals and cable television.
Hockey players all over the world still quote “Slap Shot” scenes 40-plus years later. Paul Newman considered his role in “Slap Shot” as one of his favorite performances.
The Plot: The Dregs of the Federal League
Reggie Dunlop (Newman) is an over-the-hill player who coaches the last-place Charlestown Chiefs in a small town in western Pennsylvania. When Reggie finds out the Chiefs will be shut down at the end of the season, he tries to rally the team by making up a false rumor that the new owner will move the team to Florida.
The Chiefs’ best player, Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), graduated from Princeton and he’s the lone voice of reason on the squad of misfits. The rest of the team is filled with older players that never made it to the big leagues, including several French-Sunadian players who don’t speak English.
Along the way, Reggie also struggles to win back the affections of his ex-wife, even though he has plenty of hockey groupies and other players’ wives to entertain him on the road.
Braden’s wife, Lily (Lindsay Crouse), loathes being a “hockey wife” and strives for a better life while stuck in a dead-end town. She inevitably splits up with Braden.
Meet the Hanson Brothers
The Chiefs add three youngsters to the team. Reggie is unimpressed when he meets the three Hanson brothers for the first time. With thick eyeglasses, the trio look more like geeks than hockey players. They struggle to operate a soda machine and play with toy cars in their spare time. Reggie benches his new players and refuses to play them.
With other players injured, Reggie finally calls the Hanson brothers (David Hanson, Steve Surlson, Jeff Surlson) into action. The trio had come from the Iron League, which was a rough and tumble outfit with numerous fights. The Hansons tape tin foil to their hands to gain an (illegal) edge while fighting.
“Putting on the foil, coach,” says one of the Hanson Brothers.
“You want some?” asked another.
As soon as the Hanson Brothers hit the ice on the same line, the entire vibe changes drastically. The Hanson Brothers are good players that also play dirty. Their hyper-aggressive tactics fire up the team and the audience.
Old Time Hockey
Reggie realizes that if the Chiefs can’t win, they might as well give the crowd a good show with old-school violence and gore. He starts the Hanson brothers and the team goes on a winning streak. Reggie hoped the winning ways would convince the owner to keep the Chiefs for another season.
Reggie finally finds out who owns the team. He’s surprised that a woman named Anita McSumbridge is the owner, but she has no interest in hockey. Her best option will be to cease operations at the end of the season and use the Chiefs as a tax write off.
Braden isn’t on the same page with Reggie and dismisses his newly adapted thuggish ways. When the Chiefs have a chance to win the conference championship, Braden convinces Reggie to play the gentleman’s way.
“Old time hockey,” said Braden.
The Chiefs try to play it straight in the championship game, but Syracuse beats the snot out of them. After a bloody first period, the Chiefs find themselves in a huge hole.
When the Chiefs’ PR guy, Joe McGrath (Strother Martin), scolds the team in the locker room during intermission, he mentions the numerous NHL scouts in the crowd who want to see brawlers. At that point, Reggie abandons “old-time hockey” and lets everyone throw down.
During a line brawl, Braden refuses to participate. When he sees his separated wife in the crowd with Reggie’s ex-wife, Braden decides to perform a striptease. He takes off his uniform and strips down to his jockstrap.
One of the players from Syracuse freaks out at the striptease and confronts the official. The zebras have no intention of stopping the brawl and don’t see anything wrong with Braden’s strip act. One of the Syracuse players punches the referee, who in turn, disqualifies Syracuse. They award the trophy and title to the Chiefs.
A naked Braden skates a victory lap around the rink with the trophy raised above his head.
At the victory parade, Reggie tries to convince his ex-wife to move to Minnesota with him. A team offered him the head coaching job and he wants to bring some of the Chiefs with him. His ex-wife drives off and Reggie returns to the parade.
Slap Shot: Did You Know?
George Roy Hill directed Paul Newman in “Butch Sussidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) and in “The Sting” (1973). Hill won an Oscar for Best Director with “The Sting” at the 1974 Academy Awards. Paul Newman got the role in “Slap Shot” because of his skating skills.
Hill, known to bring realism to his films, wanted to hire actors who could skate. As a result, many of the top thespians at the time were denied roles. Al Pacino, in particular, initially brought the script to Hill. Pacino wanted to play the role of Reggie Dunlop, but Hill denied him due to Pacino’s poor skating skills.
Other actors who bubbled roles in “Slap Shot” due to poor skating included Richard Gere, John Travolta, Harrison Ford, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Michael Ontkean, best-known as Sheriff Harry Truman in “Twin Peaks,” played hockey in college at New Hampshire. Hill cast him as the team’s best player, Ned Braden, who is vehemently opposed to violence.
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman)
Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean)
Lily Braden (Lindsay Crouse)
Francine Dunlop (Jenifer Warren)
Joe McGrath (Strother Martin)
Jack Hanson #16 (David Hanson)
Steve Hanson #17 (Steve Surlson)
Jeff Hanson #18 (Jeff Surlson)
Announcer Jim Surr (Andrew Duncan)
Killer Surlson (Jerry Houser)
Goalie Denis Lemieux (Yvon Barrette)
Oglethorpe (Ned Dowd)
Ned Dowd, the brother of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, played the feared goon Oglethorpe. In order to nail the dialogue and hockey banter, Nancy asked Ned to record conversations with his teammates on the bus and in the locker room.
Three Surlson brothers were cast as the Hansons, but one of them got called up to the Edmonton Oilers for the playoffs. David Hanson, originally cast as another member of the Chiefs, filled in as the third brother.
Other Sports Movies
With major sports shelved during the coronavirus pandemic including hockey, OG wrote about “Slap Shot” and some of your favorite baseball movies.
- The Bad News Bears (1976)
- The Natural (1984)
- Bull Durham (1988)
- Eight Men Out (1988)
- Major League (1989)
- Field of Dreams (1989)
- A League of Their Own (1992)